“Let me state again, we cannot achieve the work of our mission without the safe, respectful, rewarding, resilient work environment that our colleagues and the American people require and deserve. In order to be successful in our work, to care for the land and serve the American people, we must hold ourselves and our agency accountable to the highest standard of conduct. We will not tolerate behavior that makes our colleagues or the people in our communities unsafe in any way, including harassment, bullying, assault, and retaliation.”
Vicki Christiansen – Interim United States Chief of the Forest Service
The following editorial was published April 3, in Editor’s Notebook: The Forestry Source – The newspaper of the Society of American Foresters. Editor, Steve Wilent, discusses the U.S. Forest Service’s deviation from the highest standard of conduct, the prompt response and directive from our interim chief, and how the U.S. Forest Service might make it’s way back to being the institution so many were and are – still – proud to serve on behalf of the American public.
The Highest Standard of Conduct
The revelations in the March 1 article by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), “They Reported Sexual Harassment. Then the Retaliation Began,” might be thought of as a wildfire. This firestorm will cool down, as fires always do, but it won’t be declared out anytime soon, and a shift in the winds may lead to new blowups and spot fires. Wildfires in forests often are beneficial when they clear out decadent vegetation, reduce accumulations of fuel, and spur new growth. The fire of gender, racial, and sexual discrimination and harassment will lead to positive change, too, but the process will be painful for everyone involved.
I hope you read the PBS article and subsequent articles, such as “Forest Service Must Change How It Investigates Sexual Misconduct, Report Says,” which describes a report recently released by the USDA Office of the Inspector General: “The report said that the Forest Service primarily uses internal investigators to perform sexual misconduct investigations, and recommended that the agency use independent contract investigators instead.” Another article to consider: “New Female Forest Service Head Launches Review of Harassment, Sexual Misconduct in the Agency,” which recounts an all-employee phone conference led by interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen.
“We’ve had some hard truths look at us,” Christiansen said during the call. “We’ve known about these, but they’re staring right at us, and clearly, we’re not doing enough. Let me state again, we cannot achieve the work of our mission without the safe, respectful, rewarding, resilient work environment that our colleagues and the American people require and deserve. In order to be successful in our work, to care for the land and serve the American people, we must hold ourselves and our agency accountable to the highest standard of conduct. We will not tolerate behavior that makes our colleagues or the people in our communities unsafe in any way, including harassment, bullying, assault, and retaliation.”
Christiansen and Acting Associate Chief Lenise Lago outlined a 30-day plan, called “Stand Up For Each Other,” that will include “listening sessions” with employees across the country about harassment and retaliation, conducted by senior agency staffers, counselors, and civil rights and communications officers. The agency also aims to create a heat map for “geospatially referencing where harassment complaints are coming from, so we’ll be able to identify where there seems to be a problem … and get resources to that location.”
I asked Sharon Friedman, who retired after 33 years with the Forest Service (including Region 5, the Washington Office, and the research and development arm), for her take on the conference call. She is chair of the Rocky Mountaineers, an association of retirees and employees of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region.
“I think that they are right about the fact that it is an ongoing problem and will take an ongoing focus and pressure through time, and I think they are the right people and this is the right time to address it,” she said.
In a thoughtful post on her blog, A New Century of Forest Planning, “Firefighters It’s Time We Lead the Way on Ending Harassment,” Friedman outlines several steps that the agency might take to better tackle the issue. For example, she suggests that the Forest Service ought to look at how other agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the US military, are dealing with discrimination and harassment, to “see what they are doing and how it has worked—or not.”
Other Voices, Other Agencies
In addition to news reports on the complaints and lawsuits about gender discrimination and sexual harassment, some women have weighed in with very personal observations. Allie Weill’s discusses the topic in “Women of Wildfire: Revolution, Superheroes, and the Case for Diversity in Fire Management.” Also worth reading: “A Firestorm of Misogyny,” by Julia Petersen in Evergreen Magazine, and an essay by Susan Marsh in Mountain Journal, “#MeToo in a Culture of Good Old Boys.” Marsh retired from the Forest Service in 2010 after 30 years of service.
If you’ve been following the news in recent months, you know that the Forest Service isn’t the only agency, company, or organization wrestling with discrimination and harassment. The problem is pervasive throughout society. But for the moment, the spotlight is on the Forest Service, and many employees, retirees, and others will be watching closely as the agency implements the “Stand Up For Each Other” initiative and, more important, as it takes concrete actions to address the issues.
In my view, the best of all the reactions to an incident of harassment was a powerful speech last year by US Air Force lieutenant general Jay Silveria, superintendent of the US Air Force Academy’s preparatory school in Colorado Springs, Colorado. After racial slurs were written on the dormitory doors of five black students at the school, General Silveria called a meeting of students and staff—more than 5,500 service members of all ranks—and he encouraged them to use their phones to record the address and to share it.
“So, just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic, I’m going to leave you with my most important thought today,” he said. “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race or a different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
I encourage you to watch the video of General Silveria’s impassioned speech. Heat maps and listening sessions are important, but I’d like to see the leaders of the Forest Service and other agencies, companies, and organizations make similar unequivocal statements: This is our institution, and we demand the highest standard of conduct. If you can’t meet that standard, or if you can’t or won’t stand up for your colleagues when they are subjected to discrimination or misconduct, then get out.
Published 12 times a year, SAF’s newspaper The Forestry Source offers the latest information on national forestry trends; the latest developments in forestry policy at the federal, state, and local levels; the newest advances in forestry-related research and technology; and up-to-date information about SAF programs and activities.